What is below is a transcription of Dr. Donald Kagan’s (Yale University) first lecture in his course on the ancient Greeks:
Why study the greeks? Because the Greeks are the most significant starting point of Western civilization, which shapes not only the West but most of the world today.
The West has provided institutions of government and law that have provided unprecedented freedom for its people, a body of scientific knowledge and technological achievement that together make possible a level of health and material prosperity undreamed of in earlier times and unknown outside of the West. The modern world is our universal civilization shaped chiefly by the West.
Most people around the world who know of them want to benefit from the achievements of science and technology. Many of them also want to participate in its political freedom. Experience suggests that a society cannot experience the full benefits of western science and technology without a commitment to reason and objectivity and to the political freedom that sustains it and helps it to move forward. The primacy of reason and the pursuit of objectivity, therefore, both characteristic of the western experience, are essential for the desired goals almost anywhere in the world.
The civilization of the West, however, was not the result of some inevitable process through which other cultures must automatically pass. It emerged through a unique history in which chance and accident played a vital part. The institutions and the ideas, therefore, that provide for freedom and improvement in the material conditions of life cannot take root and flourish without an understanding of how they came about and what challenges they have had to surmount. Non-western peoples that wish to share in the things that characterize modernity will need to study the ideas and history of western civilization to achieve what they want, and westerners who wish to preserve these things must do the same.
The many civilizations adopted by the human race share basic characteristics. Most have tended toward cultural uniformity and stability. Reason, although it was employed for all sorts of practical intellectual purposes, it still lacked independence from religion and it laced the high status to challenge most basic received ideas. The standard form of government has been monarchy. Outside the West republics have been unknown. Rulers have been thought to be divine or appointed spokesmen for divinity. Religious and political institutions and beliefs have been thoroughly intertwined as a mutually supportive, unified structure.
Government has not been subject to secular reasoned analysis. It has rested on religious authority, tradition, and power. The concept of individual freedom has had no importance in the great majorities of human culture in history. The first and the sharpest break with this common human experience came in ancient Greece. The Greek city-states, called polis, were republics. Differences in wealth among their citizens were relatively small. There were no kings with the wealth to hire mercenary soldiers so the citizens had to do their own fighting and had to decide when to fight. As independent defenders of the common safety and the common interest, they demanded a role in the most important political decisions. In this way for the first time political life was invented. The word political, after all, derives from the word polis. Before this time, no word was needed because there was no such thing. This political life came to be shared by a relatively large portion of the people and participation in political life was highly valued by the Greeks. Such states did not need a bureaucracy. For there were no vast royal or state holdings that needed management, and not much economic surplus to support a bureaucratic class. There was no separate class of priests and there was very little concern with life after death, which was universally important in other civilizations.
In this varied, dynamic, secular and remarkably free context, there arose for the first time a speculative, natural philosophy based on observation and reason. The root of natural modern science and philosophy, free to investigate or to ignore divinity. What most sets the Greeks apart was their view of the world. For where other peoples had seen sameness and continuity, the Greeks and the heirs of their way of thinking have tended to notice disjunctions and to make distinctions. The Greek way of looking at things required a change from the characteristic way of knowing things before the Greeks, that is to say, the use of faith, poetry, and intuition and instead the Greeks increasingly focused on a reliance on reason. Reason permits a continuing rational inquiry into the nature of reality. Unlike mystical insights, scientific theories cannot be arrived at by meditation alone, but require accurate observation of the world and reasoning of a kind that other human beings can criticize, analyze, modify and correct. The adoption of this way of thinking was the beginning of the liberation and enthronement of reason to whose searching examination the Greeks thereafter exposed everything perceived, natural, human, and divine.
From the time they formed their republics to the time they were conquered by alien empires, Greeks rejected monarch of any kind. They thought that human beings functioning in his full capacity must live as a free man in an autonomous polis ruled by laws that were the product of the political community and not by an arbitrary fiat from some man or god. These are ideas about laws and justice have not simply flourished outside the western tradition or influenced by the West.
The Greeks however combined a unique sense of mankind’s high place in the natural order and what possibilities humans had before them with a painful understanding of the limitations of the greatness and the possibilities before man. This combination of the possibilities and limitations of man compose the tragic vision of the human condition that characterized classic Greek civilization.
To cope with it they urged human beings to restrain their overarching ambitions. Inscribed at Apollo’s temple at Delphi, the Greeks called the navel of the universe, were these words, “Know thyself” and “Nothing in Excess.” In other words, know your own limitations as a fallible mortal and then exercise moderation for you are not divine but mortal. These exhortations relied on a good political regime to enable human beings to fulfill the capacities that were part of their nature, to train them in virtue and to restrain them from vice. Aristotle made the point neatly. “As man is the best of the animals when perfected so he is the worst when separated from law and justice. For injustice is most dangerous when it is armed, and man armed with good sense and virtue may use them for entirely opposite ends. Therefore, when he is without virtue, man is the most unscrupulous and savage of the animals. He went on to say that justice needed to control this dark side of human nature can be only be found in a well-ordered society of free people who governed themselves, and the only he knew was the polis of the Greeks.
Now the second great strand in the history of the West is the Judeo-Christian tradition, a very different tradition than the one we have been describing. Christianity’s main roots were in Judaism, a religion that worshiped a single, all powerful deity who is sharply separated from human beings, makes great moral demands upon them, and judges them all, even kings and emperors. Christianity began as a persecuted religion that ultimately captured the Roman Empire, only after centuries of hostility toward the Roman Empire, and toward the secular state in general. It never lost entirely its original character as an insurgent movement, independent of the state and hostile to it, making claims that challenged the secular authority. This, too, is unique to the West. This kind of religious organization is to be found nowhere else in human society. The union of a universalist religion with a monarch such as the Roman Emperor could have put an end to any prospect of freedom as in other civilizations. But Christianity’s inheritance of the rational, disputatious Greek philosophy led to powerfully divisive quarrels about the nature of God and other theological questions, which was perfectly in the tradition of Greek philosophical debate. The people whom the Romans called barbarians destroyed the western empire and it also destroyed the power of the emperors and the power impose political and religious conformity under imperial control. The emperor in the East was able to do that because they were not conquered by the barbarians but in the West nobody is fully in charge.
And here we have arrived at a second sharp break with the experience of mankind. The west of the Germanic tribes that had toppled the empire was weak and it was divided. The barriers to unity presented by European geography and very limited technology made it hard for a would be conqueror to create a vast empire, eliminating competitors and imposing his will on vast areas. These conditions permitted a development of institutions and habits needed for freedom even as they also made Europe vulnerable to conquest and Europe was almost extinguished before there was a Europe. The Christian church might have stepped into the breach and imposed obedience and uniformity for all the West had been christianized. But the church never gained enough power to control the state. Strong enough to interfere with the ambitions of emperors and kings, it never was able to impose its own domination, though some of the Popes sure tried. Nobody sought or planned for freedom, but in the spaces that were left by the endless conflicts of secular rulers and between them and the church, there was room for freedom to grow. Freedom was kind of an accident. It came about because the usual ways of doing things were not possible.
Into some of that space towns and cities appeared, and with them new supports for freedom. Taking advantage of the rivalries mentioned, they obtained charters from the local powers establishing their rights to conduct their own affairs and to govern themselves. In Italy some of these cities were able to gain control of the surrounding country and to become city states resembling states resembling those of the ancient Greeks. Their autonomy was assisted by the continuing struggles between Popes and Emperors, church and state, a very unique western experience. In these states the modern world began to take form. Although people were mainly Christians, their lives and outlooks became increasingly secular. Here and in other cities north of the Alps arose a worldview that celebrated the greatness and dignity of mankind, which was a very sharp turning away from the medieval western tradition that put God and the hereafter at the center of everything. This new vision is revealed with flamboyance confidence by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who wrote the following. “God told man that we (meaning God) have mad thee neither or heaven or of earth, neither mortal or immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer. O supreme generosity of God the Father, O highest and great felicity of man, to him it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills.” Now this is a remarkable leap, even beyond the humanism of the Greeks, something brand new in the world. According to this view man is not merely the measure of all things the Greek sophists Protagoras had radically claimed in the fifth century BC, he is, in fact, says Pico more than mortal. He is unlimited by nature. He is entirely free to shape himself and to acquire whatever he wants. Please observe, too, that it is not his reason that will determine human actions, but his will alone, free of the moderating control of reason. 20:44
Another Florentine, Machiavelli, moved further in the same direction. For him, fortune is a woman, and it is necessary to hold her down, beat her, and fight with her, a notion the Greeks would have regarded as dangerously arrogant and certain to produce disaster. They would have seen this as an example of hubris, what happens when men see themselves as more than human and act as though they were divine. Francis Bacon, influenced by Machiavelli, urged human beings to force their nature to keep up her secrets, to master nature to improve man’s material well being. He assumed that such a course would lead to progress and the general improvement of the human condition. And it was that sort of thinking that lay at the heart of the scientific revolution and remains the faith upon which modern science and technology rests. A couple of other English philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, apply similar novelty and modernity to the sphere of politics, basing their understanding upon the common passions of man for a comfortable self-preservation, and discovering something the Greeks had never thought of that they called natural rights, that belonged to a man either as a part of nature or the gift of a benevolent and reasonable God. Man was seen as a solitary creature, not inherently a part of society, and his basic rights were to be seen as absolute, for nothing should interfere with the right of each individual to defend his life, liberty, and property. Freedom was threatened in early modern times by the emergence of monarchies that might have been able to crush it. The cause of individual freedom was enhanced by the Protestant Reformation. Another upheaval within Christianity arises from its focus on individual salvation, its inheritance of a tradition of a penetrating reason, even to matters of faith, and to the continuing struggle between church and state. The English Revolution came about in large part because of King Charles I’s attempt to impose an alien religious conformity, as well as tightening political control on his kingdom. But in England the tradition of freedom and government bound by law was already strong enough to produce effective resistance. From the ensuing rebellion came limited constitutional representative government and ultimately our modern form of democracy. The example and the ideas it produced informed and encouraged the French and the American revolutions and our modern constitutional tradition. These ideas and institutions are the basis for modern liberal thinking about politics, the individual, and society. Just as the confident view of science and technology has progressive forces, improving the lives of humanity and increasing man’s capacity to understand and control the universe has been the most powerful form taken by the elevation of reason.
In the last two centuries both these characteristic forms of western civilization have in fact come increasingly under heavy attack. At different times science and technology have been blamed for the destruction of human community, and the alienation of people from nature and one another, for intensifying the gulf between rich and poor, for threatening the very existence of humanity, either by producing weapons of total destruction or by destroying the environment. At the same time the foundations of freedom have also come into question. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues could confidently their political rights as being self evident and the gift of a creator. By now in our time, however, the power of religion has faded, and for many the basis for moral and political order has been demolished. Nietzsche has announced the death of God and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor asserted that when God is dead, all things are permitted. Nihilism rejects any objective basis for society and its morality. It rejects the very concept of objectivity. It even rejects the possibility of communication itself. And though the form of nihilism has a remarkable influence in our educational system, the consequences of the victory of such ideas would be enormous. If both religion and reason are removed, all that remains is will and power where the only law that remains is the law of tooth and claw. There is no protection for the freedom of weaker individuals or those who question the authority of the most powerful. There is no basis for individual rights or for a critique of existing ideas and institutions if there is no basis in either religion or reason.
That such attacks on the greatest achievement of the West should be should be made by western intellectuals is perfectly in keeping with the western tradition. The first crowd to do stuff like that you will find in the 5th century BC in Greece in a movement called the Sophist. Yet it seems to be ironic that they have gained so much currency in a time in which the achievements of western reason in the form of science and in a moment when the concept of political freedom seem to be more popular and more desirable to people in and out of western civilization than ever.
We have been saying kind things about western civilization, but I would not want to deny that there is a dark side to the western experience and its way of life. To put untrammeled reason and individual freedom at the center of a civilization is to live with the conflict, the turmoil, the instability, and the uncertainty that these things create. Freedom and born and has survived in space created by divisions conflict within and between nations and religions. We must wonder whether the power of modern weapons will allow it and the world to survive at such a price.
Individual freedom, although it has elevated the condition of people who have lived in free societies, inevitably permits inequalities, which are the more galling because each person is plainly free to try to improve his situation and largely responsible for the outcome. Freedom does permit isolation from society and an alienation of the individual at a high cost both to the individual and society.
And these are not the only problems posed by the western tradition in its modern form. Whether it takes the shape of the unbridle claims of Pico della Mirandola, of the Nietzschean assertion of the superior individual who can transform and shape his own nature, or of the modern totalitarian effort to change the nature of humanity by utopian social engineering, the temptation to arrogance offered by the ideas and worldly success of the modern west threaten it won great traditions and achievements.
Because of western civilization’s emergence as the exemplary civilization, it also presents problems to the whole world. The challenge is presented by freedom and the predominance of freedom cannot be ignored, nor can they met by recourse to the experience of other cultures where these characteristics have not been prominent. In other words, to understand and cope with the problems that we all face, we all need to know and grapple with the western experience.
We need a especially the older traditions of the West that came before the modern era and to take seriously the possibility that useful wisdom can be found there, especially among the Greeks who began it all. They understood the potentiality of human beings, their limitations, and the predicament in which they lived. Man is potent and important, yet he is fallible and mortal, capable of the greatest achievements, and the worst crimes. He is then a tragic figure, powerful but limited, with freedom to choose and act, but bound by his own nature, knowing that he will never achieve perfect knowledge and understanding, justice and happiness, but determined to continue the search, no matter what. That seems an accurate description of the human condition that is meaningful, not only for the Greeks and their heirs in the West, but for all human beings. It is an understanding that cannot be achieved without a serious examination of the western experience.
The abandonment of such a study or its adulteration for current political purposes would be a terrible loss for all of humanity. And at the base of that civilization stood the Greeks. These are the reasons to examine their experience.